Dollars and Priorities: Data Says Spend More, Smarter

In this latest installment of our “Dollars and Priorities” series, we examine how research on child abuse and neglect could shape reform of the way the nation’s child welfare system is paid for.

As pointed out in both columns this week, research out of the University of Southern California’s Children’s Data Network has created a clearer picture of the scope of child maltreatment than has ever been offered before.

What will come as no surprise to anyone who has read past columns in this series is that the facts uncovered by the Children’s Data Network lead our columnists ­– Richard Wexler and Sean Hughes – to significantly different conclusions.

But let’s start with the research.

In 2011, the Data Network’s Director, Emily Putnam-Hornstein, then at the University of California, Berkeley, co-authored a study entitled “A Public Health Approach to Child Maltreatment Surveillance.” That study, for the first time ever, linked birth records to administrative data provided by California’s Department of Social Services and death records.

Putnam-Hornstein and colleagues Barbara Needell, Daniel Webster and Joseph Magruder followed the more than two million babies born in California between 1999 and 2002 to age 5, and found that 5.2 percent would have substantiated reports of child abuse and neglect by their fifth birthday.

A similar study, led by Putnam-Hornstein soon after taking a position at USC’s School of Social Work, found that 5.1 percent of all babies born in California in 2006 and 2007 would be substantiated victims of abuse or neglect by their fifth birthday.

This is five times the rate one would glean from federal data provided by the Department of Health and Human Services, which has consistently reported that about one in 100 children will be confirmed victims of abuse or neglect in a given year.

Further, and maybe more importantly, these waves of research have had the benefit of the information entered in at the time of a baby’s birth. Whether or not the father was present on the birth certificate, the age of the mother, birth weight and whether the mother was on public health insurance all correlate to rates of abuse for children before their fifth birthday.

Sean Hughes argues that this evidence suggests that the child protection system is not resourced to adequately address the child maltreatment threat that exists; and that the system should expand to take on this threat.

Richard Wexler dismisses the findings as little more than stating the obvious. If you track anyone for five years, you are more likely to find that something happened to them than if you tracked them for only one year, he argues.

The true power of the data linkage projects pioneered by Putnam-Hornstein is that they have better defined why children come into contact with the system, how many do, and what happens to them in their early childhood. In the broader discussion about how the country should pay to protect children and prevent child abuse, this kind of data is invaluable in deciding how to best allocate resources.

Wexler ends his piece by asking and answering a critical question that we have been examining in this series for months.

“To solve the serious and real problem of child abuse, do we need to spend more or do we need to spend smarter?”

His answer, which is rhetorically satisfying and would also be agreeable to Hughes, is “yes.”

Now, how do we use the powerful data that has been given to the field to spend more, and spend it smarter?

Read Wexler’s piece here. Read Hughes’ piece here.

As always, we welcome your comments and commentary.

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